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Literally Literary

Kauser Razvi and city leaders are hoping to transform empty lots in Cleveland into literary wonderlands

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Kauser Razvi, the project manager for the region's upcoming Literary Lots project, talked with Scene about bringing classic children's books to the streets of Cleveland. The whole thing has involved a great deal of work up front, but Razvi and everyone else involved are planning on unveiling their work at an otherwise vacant lot in town in early August. Check out literarylots.org for more information and a projected timetable as the summer unfolds.

On Cleveland's burgeoning pop-culture

I take my kids to these pop-up events that started becoming more popular around Cleveland. And we go to the library a lot.

But wouldn't it be awesome if there was a pop-up event for kids? I was kind of noticing at the festivals or at Wade Oval Wednesdays, for instance, that they have activities for kids, but it's kind of supplementary. And that's fine, because Wade Oval Wednesday is about family and it's about something else—it's about the concert. But even all with the pop-up stuff—at first, there was nothing for kids. Then, at Ingenuity Fest and elsewhere, there was more and more.

Last year, Ingenuity had a big cardboard castle with paints and pastels. Kids could draw and put their artwork on it. I noticed that more and more at these events—probably because people with kids were coming and probably because the people putting them on were having kids. There started to be more kids things. But it was still separate from the other Ingenuity stuff. It's kid-friendly to a certain extent. And that's 100-percent appropriate and OK.

On pop-up events for kids

So I asked: What if we took a book and brought it to life? Imagine a vacant lot and it's there and you pass it all the time, then all of a sudden something's happening. There's a gate or a door that you open and suddenly you're in your favorite book. You're in Dr. Seuss and you see Truffula trees and you see the Lorax. You're on Treasure Island and you see a shipwreck. You're in Neverland and you see a mermaid and Captain Hook's boat and a tree with fairies. How great would that be if you had a space like that?

On the years of planning for this project

The work is super ambitious. A lot of work that I do is bringing organizations together. And part of what I'm interested in personally is "decentralized organization," if that makes sense. So I was thinking about this pop-up idea for kids. That's idea number one. Then I have this idea about making it into a book. That's gelling in my head for over a year. Then, because we're talking about inner-city neighborhoods, what if we got these institutions to bring these places to children? The idea was then to create this space, but wouldn't it be more awesome if we had all this programming actually come to the kids to make all of this learning and fun tangible?

On the combination of learning and fun

Everyone learns differently. I see that even with my own two kids—how differently they learn. And they're way smarter than we were at their age. They have so much more access to knowledge, because it's more readily available. So the goal is to have all these different institutions come together to approach the books and reading in different ways.

You have art that's about the book. Or there will be a writing workshop in which children write the rest of an ambiguous ending to a story. That how these Literary Lots can be really magnificent. So I put all of that in a proposal and submitted it to the library.

On the fundraising effort

I put a Kickstarter together to earn a portion of the money. I've raised about $30,000 to date. But we still need more. People ask why it's so expensive, but we're securing a vacant lot for children that's going to be open for two or three weeks. We have to pay people to provide good programming. No kids are going to pay anything for this, but we still have to pay that high-quality instructor to teach writing or painting. We're working with Ohio City Writers and Art House.

On the combination of food and books

It's not just about kids; it's about kids and their families. We'll have a food-based theme. Think "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" and "Strega Nona." This particular lot will not be just about one book. It'll bring together ideas from several books. Like, we want to create these sandwich boats and spaghetti tubes from "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" or the tea party from "Alice in Wonderland." I don't want to give so much away, because, of course, there will be a big unveiling. It's all about food and community, and it fits in with the neighborhood. It'll be near the market in Ohio City. There was just so much synergy there.

On engagement

The idea, again, is just trying to think of all the ideas and assets to engage all the people who come. It's about making something and creating a place. Sometimes, that's a magnet and sometimes it takes a little while for that attraction to happen. We will do this in the first couple weeks in August. A lot of summer camps end in August, so part of it is that. In some of these neighborhoods, we're keeping in mind that this is a good place to build community. It's not a camp; you can't drop your kid off at 9 and pick them up at 3. But you can hang out with your kid and read a book before going into a writing workshop. We've tried to cover so many things, but the catalyst is leveraging the theme of books in any way we can to get engagement.

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